Willimon’s Project: Does It make Sense?

by William L. Sachs

William L. Sachs is rector of St. Matthew’s Episcopal Church in Wilton, CT.

This article appeared in the Christian Century, April 19, 1989, p 412. Copyright by the Christian Century Foundation and used by permission. Current articles and subscription information can be found at www.christiancentury.org. This material was prepared for Religion Online by Ted & Winnie Brock.


In opposing historic assumptions about mainstream Christianity, Willimon may be kicking an already comatose form of Christianity.

William H. Willimon seems to be everywhere. When he is not preaching or teaching at Duke University, he is publishing books and articles on preaching, exegesis, ministry and the church, and he regularly gives lectures and leads conferences.

I encountered Willimon at a workshop for Episcopal clergy on preaching. In an opening homily, Willimon cited Luke 17, the account of the unworthy servant, as a prelude to a discussion of ministry as duty. Ministers should not expect to be affirmed by their congregations and are often obliged to do what is not pleasing, he contended. Ministry is not derived from notions of sensitivity or rationality, but is grounded in service. The significance of the servant comes from a relationship to the master. Willimon spiced his message with anecdotes from parish life that any minister would recognize, and he modulated the presentation with a husky Piedmont twang.

As the day progressed Willimon’s message unfolded: modern culture has distanced itself from the church, which can no longer rely on the culture to do religion’s work. The church was meant to be not an inclusive or accommodating community, but an exclusive story-formed community. Luke-Acts illustrates the subversion of, not the accommodation to, Roman culture. Alluding to the problem of clergy burnout, Willimon claimed clergy have been ground down by trivialities and have lost sight of what is important. Often their contribution is not valued and their distinctive role is not acknowledged. But ministers must understand that life is a combat. Ministry means facing harsh truths and allowing the Bible to reveal the difference between true and false community.

The assembled clergy responded enthusiastically. One bishop said that Willimon is "recovering the integrity of the church and its message." "Integrity" and "freshness" are words a number of the clergy chose. One minister added that Willimon "engages the questions we all have, especially questions of evil and suffering. He’s one of us." Another priest liked Willimon’ s unabashed southern accent. "He’s not afraid of being distinctive. He talks our language; he’s been there. He gives me a way to make the gospel, not the culture, central.’’

Clearly, Willimon taps profound clergy sensibilities. But what exactly is he saying? And does it make sense?

Willimon frequently writes in collaboration with Duke colleague Stanley Hauerwas, joining his pastoral project to Hauerwas’s theological one. The two share a mood, if not a position. They both use George Lindbeck’ s Nature of Doctrine: Religion and Theology in a Postliberal Age as a manual of arms. Christianity, they believe, is a unique language and must not be expressed in terms of the world. The gospel projects a counterculture, an alternative way of life. Their message, Willimon and Hauerwas caution, is not another form of neo-orthodoxy stressing personal belief rather than congregational life. Nor do they assume the neoconservative stance of Richard John Neuhaus and Michael Novak, which is more optimistic about the culture and less assertive about the church. For Willimon and Hauerwas, the loci of Christian faith are the church, not the world, and the Christian story, not individual self-understanding and life in a pluralistic culture.

"Salvation is the tough social formation of a colony, a holy nation, a people, a family, a congregation that is able to stand against the pretensions and the illusions of the world," Willimon writes. The Christian faith concerns a story that draws the believer into a new, alternative world. The gospel does not intend to accept all religions as true, nor does it endorse forms of religion grounded in public life. The church must assert its distinctiveness through an emphasis upon liturgy and upon formation, using the Christian story to create a sense of peoplehood and to incorporate others into the church. The church has sacrificed its integrity in an attempt to permeate American culture with Christian belief. That effort and its underlying assumptions must be abandoned. Willimon has characterized liberalism as the belief in a "universal human experience" transcending particular expressions. Liberals dismiss particularity as unreasonable, preferring a general theory of religion governed by cultural norms of truth and goodness. Religious experience, not doctrine, serves as liberalism’s universal category, Willimon says, citing Lindbeck. The experiential approach hallows the inner self and diminishes the importance of traditional, corporate embodiments of faith.

Willimon thus far has not modified the Lindbeck and Hanerwas critique appreciably. His contribution is to apply it to pastoral style and church life. Clergy are more receptive on these points than when he lampoons theological giants. They laugh when he scorns pop psychology, balloon and butterfly liturgies, and rootless social action. Willimon’s altar call to recover the distinctiveness of the ministry and of the church brings vigorous assent. He strikes a deep resonance within mainstream clergy, many of whom seek a new vision of church life. He taps a longing for assurance in ordained ministry, which could be a significant force.

But how theologically and pastorally sound is Willimon’s project? Does he effectively counter clergy discontent, even if he touches on its sources? One of Willimon’s strengths, and the source of much of his appeal, is his realism. He is familiar with tedious church committees, quarrelsome parishioners and lean budgets. He knows that people suffer from cancer, commit adultery, and use drugs. Willimon is not tempted by warm-fuzzy piety; part of his agenda is to demolish such a trivialization of the church. Clergy pay attention to Willimon because he struggles with the issues that confront them.

Willimon also dignifies the church and its task in several ways. With Hauerwas, he says that theology should help congregations "appreciate the significance of their common acts" and "understand the common but no less theologically significant activities that constitute their lives." Seminaries and congregations can discover a new appreciation of the Christian story and of liturgy as foundations of "a visible people who has listened to a different story from that of the world."

In other words, Willimon finds meaning in the routines of parish life. He scorns the reductionism that sees liturgy as subsidiary, and that reads ulterior purposes into biblical narrative. Whereas some forms of liberalism have tended to disdain church structure and middle-class life, Willimon refuses to apologize for them; he sees the church’s ordinary life as important. He thinks the congregation ought to instruct seminaries and theologians rather than the other way around.

His perspective also dignifies the Bible and elevates the significance of preaching and teaching. This emphasis invigorates clergy and enlivens the Sunday chores. It is praxis at its best. Willimon’s repeated use of the term "story" has powerful appeal, and suggests renewed attention to liturgy as the environment for preaching. Here the relation between symbolic and common acts in congregational life becomes clear.

Formation is another strength of Willimon’s program. Willimon emphasizes that "Christians are made, not born." The story has to be heard; it is not innately our own. Being Christian "is much like learning a language. . . . The enculturation that this language provides gives us a new perspective on life and forms us into a particular person." The church’s primary task is to devise forms of apprenticeship by which new believers "model their lives upon those of developed believers."

Willimon’s Christianity appears tribal or sectarian. He is sensitive to these categories, but not afraid of them; he considers them liberalism’s defensive gestures. Indeed, such accusations are futile, for they play into his polemic.

Yet Willimon’s eagerness to deflate liberalism in this regard is excessive. His criticisms of the liberal tradition are labored, repetitive and often snide. Moreover, whose liberalism he is attacking is not entirely clear. The liberalism of the political order and the academy? Of clergy and laity? Of seminary faculty and students? Or, as seems the case, is he attacking a Zeitgeist that has pervaded the mainstream churches? For all the ink Willimon spills on liberalism, it is not clear who bears the stain.

His work also raises questions of context. It would be helpful if Willimon analyzed how churches got into the dilemma he perceives. It could be argued that mainstream Christianity has produced strongly countercultural impulses for a generation -- the civil rights and antiwar movements, charismatic renewal and the new interest in spirituality, for example. Also, Willimon needs better to understand the context of his own particularity. He opposes a cluster of historic assumptions about mainstream Christianity and its public role, assumptions which the diminishing status of the mainstream has rendered problematic anyway. He may be kicking an already comatose form of Christianity.

Questions of context arise in another way, for Willimon has oversimplified the distinction between church and culture. He notes that every person inherits a culture and becomes socialized in some way or another. In his scheme the church offers an alternative form of socialization. But to incorporate a person into the church is not to remove that person from the snares of secularity. People continue to have jobs and families, and live in neighborhoods where Christian community is one alternative among many. Even the most skilled means of community formation must address the social schizophrenia that Christians experience. The church has to offer alternative ways to be public, not images of separation. The church must engage its social environment constructively.

Despite Willimon’s avoidance of the truth issue, that question bedevils many people. Incorporation does not erase the manifold doubts that assail the believer. Belonging and believing do not necessarily advance in tandem. Mainstream Christianity has been able to tolerate divergent personal quests, to blend people at different stages of nurture into forms of common prayer. Even a militant ecclesiastical posture will not dissolve questions of faith, just as it cannot assuage personal doubt and confusion. The future strength of the historically mainstream church depends upon confidently proclaiming the faith while ministering to individuals whose personal convictions are inchoate. How can high moral, doctrinal and liturgical standards be upheld for people who live in the secular world, who seek transcendent reality in the midst of mundane experience? Boundaries alone cannot suffice.

Willimon’s work needs to make a stronger connection between personal faith and participation in religious community. Alluding to Ananias and Sapphira, Willimon told the Episcopal clergy that the community is more important than any individual. While this position might be an admirable ideal for the Christian community, it is not realistic. The people to whom the church ministers think neither in collective nor in exclusive terms. The church must teach an understanding of personal faith that prepares people to participate in community. The church must also acknowledge that belonging to the church occurs at different levels of commitment, and that people belong to many forms of community. In other words, the church’s responsibility is to devise programs which teach the meaning of life in community and lead people toward significant forms of commitment to Christian community. Surely, formation, as Willimon intends it, entails a process of incorporation through various stages of faith.

Also, in focusing on the distinctiveness of ministry, Willimon might emphasize more the acts of confession and absolution. The church should articulate high moral standards, but it must not hold people to them dictatorially. The church’s role is to teach and, in teaching, to encourage contrition and opportunities for new beginning. If the church taught that each believer is simul iustus et peccator, it would both guard its distinctiveness and proclaim its pastoral nature. This posture would extend the meaning of formation by acknowledging the humanity of the believer and the fact that life’s ambiguities do not evaporate by participation in Christian community.

Lurking in Willimon’s writings are suggestions of a new kind of mainstream church and hints of how it might be realized. But he needs to move with greater clarity from polemic to program. Otherwise he will remain a prophet of the old kingdom rather than an evangel of a new one.